The Good Guys premieres tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Someone (and, honestly, I don't remember who, but it was probably Dan Fienberg) described The Good Guys as a full-length series made out of the music video for The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." That's not entirely wrong. This is a show that is more about Bradley Whitford's '80s mustache than it is about Whitford himself, as if the mustache could represent everything we might get filled in about the character through exposition and actions on another show. I mean, we get all of that, too, but it's clear that the mustache is almost supposed to be the character, rather than the character feeling like someone who would wear the mustache. It's a parody of an '80s cop show, but it also wants to be an '80s cop show, like Simon & Simon or Jake and the Fat Man, and it's in that intersection that the show has more trouble working.
Make no mistake: This series can be very, very funny. Colin Hanks and Whitford, as the two mismatched partners at the center of the show, have tremendous comic chemistry, and when the two start rolling, it's easy to see why Fox rushed this one into development to get it on after Idol and have new episodes run in the summer. It's the perfect kind of escapist show when it wants to be, and in that regard, it recalls creator Matt Nix's other show, Burn Notice. This is a show, as was Burn Notice, that revives the cliches of the kinds of TV that were on in the '70s and '80s, sticks them in a bag with the self-aware irony and serialization of so many shows from today, then gives them a good shake to see what sticks together. And like Burn Notice, The Good Guys has a pilot that's more interesting for what it points toward than for what it actually is.
If Burn Notice was an '80s action show that had a bunch of serialization added on to it in the form of the continuing story of who burned central series figure Michael Weston, then The Good Guys is that '80s cop show tossed together with a jokey sense of how ridiculous everything is, right down to the idea of mismatched partners who are nevertheless perfect for each other, and the sorts of time-bending narratives that have become increasingly popular in the last few years. The Good Guys dances merrily through the timestream of its storyline, bouncing from one event back into time to fill in context and keeping the audience ahead of the main characters via this method. It lets our heroes be clueless, but it also lets the show seem believable for having them continually catch up to the bad guys, often through blind luck.
The cast of the show is tremendous. Hanks and Whitford's chemistry is just awesome to behold, and the show surrounds them with other fun players, like Jenny Wade (late of the lamented Reaper) as Hanks' love interest and the assistant district attorney who keeps offering the two advice as well as stringing Hanks along. Diana-Maria Riva is given the thankless task of being the two's boss, but she does the best she can with the material (which is among the only stuff that doesn't seem to be winking at cliche). And the guest cast is fantastic, ranging from Andrew Divoff as a Peruvian assassin who's not as bad-ass as he seems to be to Tom Amandes as an over-the-top plastic surgeon who just wants to get out of the bad guys' way. I even liked Nia Vardalos for the first time in ages as a middle-aged housewife who's drawn to Whitford when she learns his backstory.
That backstory is where the fun that's there to be had in The Good Guys starts to fall apart. The story of Whitford's character - he was instrumental in rescuing the governor's son 25 years ago, and though the efforts of doing so gave him fame, they had a detrimental effect on his partner - is supposed to ground the character, I think, but he's a character that doesn't need grounding. He's a walking, talking cliche, and the purpose of the show much of the time is to see how everyone reacts to having a heavily boozing cop with little sense of how ridiculous he looks walking in the midst of everyone. Whitford is not known for playing roles like this, but he plays this one so well, as a kind of over-the-top comedic utility player, that I'm not sure the series needs to soften him in any way.
And yet, the show keeps trying to soften him, to make him feel like someone we're supposed to take seriously, as either a cop with a good sense of gut instinct or a guy who's honestly torn up inside about the price of his most famous case. There are similar hints that all of the other regular characters will have tortured backstories that we'll have doled out to us a piece at a time, but I'm not sure the show needs any of this either. We get what's up with Hanks almost as soon as we meet him, and we probably don't need the copious hints dropped about why his relationship with Wade went wrong, when we can see for ourselves just why as he tries too hard to win her back. It's not that any of this material is bad or poorly handled or anything. It's just not immediately clear it needs to be there. It's like the show starts out as a goofy cop parody and takes a hard left turn into being an episode of the latter seasons of NYPD Blue.
But there's enough here that works to make me think the show will be worth following as it goes along. Nix is well-known for how he took Burn Notice from a passable entertainment in its first season and turned it into one of the best escapist shows on TV at the start of its second, and I wouldn't be surprised by a similar evolution here. Nix certainly knows what's working and what's not, and he has a tendency to switch over to the show that works better sooner, rather than later. It also helps that he's brought over Burn Notice's sense of doing very fun action sequences on the cheap to this show, as there's a car chase near the end - scored to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," a song I never thought I'd see used well in a movie or TV show again - that hits all of the expected beats but hits them so hard that there's nothing left to do but get drawn into it. The thing builds a sense of momentum and excitement, and by the end, all of your objections to what might have been boring you before are washed away.
Fox, of course, is bringing The Good Guys to air in the same way it brought Glee to the air. It seems unlikely this show will be as divisive or as beloved by a certain portion of the audience as that one. The Good Guys is the latest in a long series of shows that are, effectively, made by fans of TV for fans of TV, and the ironic distance and goofy humor of such shows tends to limit their audience. But I'm someone who enjoys a good riff on the kinds of shows I used to make fun of in my youth. If you're looking for a show that only aims to give you a good time and a few laughs, you could honestly do a whole lot worse than The Good Guys.